Sticky Bobs

Due to the fact that the Greater Burdock’s (Arctium lappa) sticky seed heads can get attached to clothing, they have gained many nicknames, including ‘Sticklebacks’, ‘Sticky Jack’, and ‘Sticky Bobs’.

Other common names: Gobo root, Beggar’s Buttons, Thorny Burr, Happy Major

Greater burdock can mainly be found in Central and Southern England, particularly in scrub, woodlands, and along roadside verges, and where soils are rich in nitrogen. It is native to most temperate regions, from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean, and from the British Isles through to Russia, and even in the Middle East to India, China, Taiwan, and Japan.

A. lappa gets its scientific name from its sticky burs. Arctium derives from the Greek word ‘arctos’ which means bear, and lappa means rough. The suffix ‘dock’ in its common name refers to the greater burdock’s giant leaves, which are similar to those in dock plants (Rumex genus). It is also commonly cultivated in Japan, where it gains its name from a certain construction technique, burdock piling.

The Greater burdock is a tall plant, which can reach heights of 1.5 m. Their leaves are dark green-grey, large, and downy, with wavy margins. The leaves can also be described as having a cordiform morphology (heart-shaped) that have a long petiole (stalk which attaches leaf to stem), and are pubescent (covered in short, fine hairs) on the underside.

Between July and September, the greater burdock produces purple flowers grouped in spherical capitula, almost like thistle plants.

The flower capitula eventually give rise to the familiar sticky burs with their large hooks. The hooks on the fruits, which contain seeds, allow for easy dispersal, attaching to the fur of animals as a form of long distance transportation. This has also been said to have been an inspiration for Velcro®.

The leaves of A. lappa provide food for many caterpillars within the Lepidoptera family (butterflies and moths), such as the thistle ermine (Myelois circumvoluta). Its flowers too attract a number of insects, including the painted lady (Vanessa cardui) and small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) butterflies.

Many parts of the greater burdock are edible, both raw and cooked (but please check before consuming). The roots, for example, are used in many Japanese dishes, and sometimes in Italy, Brazil, and Portugal. In Britain, the roots were traditionally used as a flavouring in the herbal drink, dandelion and burdock, and this is still commercially produced to this day.

Parts of A. lappa are also widely used as one of the foremost detoxifying herbs in both Chinese and Western herbal medicines. Dried roots of one year old greater burdocks are most commonly used, but the leaves and fruits are also somewhat used. These are used to treat conditions caused by an overload of toxins, such as infections, rashes, and other skin problems.